Here it is!
The second collection of tales from our farming life – this time authentic anecdotes from a decade of dairying on our first ‘own’ farm.
The first book in this series was –
tales from our ‘apprenticeship’ on a wheat/sheep farm in Western Australia.
At first, for this second book, I’d planned to post a chapter a month or more and then self-publish in time for Christmas 2015. But you know the saying about ‘the best made plans of mice and men’ – and so it has transpired that Life’s journey has rearranged my thinking.
Chapter 1. Dairy Farmers? Really?
“A whole year, marking time in the city.” Kanute frowns as he remembers. He curls his lip at the thought. “Guess I was luckier than you. At least a Building Supervisor spends some part of his day outdoors. On the building site, mostly. Heaps of driving too… suppliers, meetings—and SO much time at Councils, trying to get approval for all kinds of jobs.”
“Tell me about it,” I say, and can’t help wrinkling my nose in disgust. “Stockings and high heels, and make-up every day. Hairdressers and new hairdos and spiffy clothes. It was hard to take,, being in an office all day again, after the freedom of the farm.”
How reluctantly we had returned to city jobs. Our hearts stayed in the country—far from the acrid smells of traffic and hot bitumen and pollution straying around every crowded corner. The night sky we now looked at competed hopelessly with the arched glow of city lights. Whenever we couldn’t physically escape to the country, we found solace at the beach, looking out to sea. The atmosphere there bore the strongest resemblance to the clarity and space of all we had left behind—with an added bonus of clean, salty air.
Twelve long months of increasingly desperate searching… it was sadly but surely becoming clear to us that buying any kind of productive farm, let alone the farm of our dreams, was financially impossible.
“How depressing was that?” I sigh. “Weekend after weekend, we’d set off with hopes so high that this would be the one… ” I am interrupted by an unexpected grin spreading across Kanute’s face. A loud laugh rolls out as he says, “What about that farm in the Adelaide hills? The one tucked away at the end of that winding, leafy lane?”
I start laughing too. “The one we rejected, thank God. Our guardian angel sure had us firmly in her sights that day.” Some years later we revisited that pretty, shady corner of the woods. The property now had a name on the rusting and precariously leaning gate, in lieu of the ‘For Sale’ sign—’Poverty Point’. Yes, well…
Reluctantly, we accepted the inevitable, our thoughts turning to the possibility of share-farming—the dairy kind. Not only were we woefully ignorant of how this worked, we seriously doubted any farm proprietor would share his precious herd and property with two novices like us. We had no idea where to look for a solution. We only knew we desperately wanted to be farmers.
Countless times in our lives when we have been at our lowest ebb, a light has flickered at the end of our tunnel and brought us through the darkness. This time was no exception. Our old friend Sven was incredulous as we cornered him to pick his brains for information about dairy share-farming. He had expected city small-talk at the crowded Danish birthday party we were enjoying. With eyes stretched wide and eyebrows raised, he said, “Dairy Farmers? You two? Really?” As we talked and fervently shared our dreams with Sven (a dairy farmer himself), he finally understood how desperate and dedicated we were to leaving city life to become farmers. Typically, as soon as he recovered from his surprise, he promised to ‘scout around’ and see if he could find any possibilities for us. True to his word, in a matter of days, Sven phoned to share some exciting news. In the strangest twist of fate, a dairy share-farming proposition had unexpectedly become available on a farm just 30 minutes away from his.
We had become better acquainted with Sven at one of Kanute’s mother’s many dinner parties, way before we were married. In those days we were the epitome of young, up-and-coming business executive types. Nothing indicated a future when we would be shifting a lot of… manure, and leaning heavily on this small wiry man with the ever-ready grin, for advice and support (“Just don’t worry about it, Christine… it’s all going to be fine.”). So much sound knowledge gained over many farming years in Denmark—and here in Australia, share farming for some time before the many years of owning his own dairy. Sven’s hard-earned experience in all aspects of dairy-farming, land management and animal husbandry taught us invaluable lessons even before day one on our own dairy farm.
“We wouldn’t have even known about the share-farming proposition without him,” Kanute still tells people, so many years later. The disbelief in his eyes is as strong as ever, no matter the years since that fateful day. As Sven was contacting and recommending us to the owner, he was drumming into our minds the intricacies of a share-farm agreement, and what we should push for as our share. Mrs. Lowe was a wealthy lady in her 80’s, living nearby on another of her several farms. Despite her great affluence, she found herself in needy circumstances of a different kind. Her dairy share farmer had left, without warning—or anybody’s knowledge of where he had gone. She had no choice but to redirect the services of the manager of her nearby home farm to milk the cows. Previously having managed a sheep enterprise north of Adelaide, he was ill-suited to his temporary role. It was hard to say who was more desperate to see his return to the work he did best and the lifestyle he loved… not milking cows.
What a crusty little old lady she was. Who could forget those canny, glittering little eyes peering over tiny spectacles hanging precariously on the end of her nose? Mrs. Lowe was small in stature, but impressive in her shrewd and calculating approach to every problem that crossed her path. Her home was filled with valuable and rare antiques that matched her somewhat haughty presence perfectly.
“What a daunting personality… even with Sven to introduce us and say so many good words about us.” I was afraid her searching gaze would expose the quivering uncertainty we hid deep inside. I was grateful the thunderous beating of my heart was only being heard in my ears.
“I still can’t fathom his deep belief in us and our degree of commitment,” Kanute says.
I shake my head, and then nod, too. Little did our ‘partner-to-be’ know that our collective milking experience was held by my husband Kanute—the hand-milking he had done as a boy on holidays on his uncle’s farm in Denmark. Fortunately, Sven had recognised our passion and desire to have our own farm—and how much courage, optimism and energy we possessed to achieve our dream. Thankfully, he didn’t share his knowledge of our ‘novice’ status with Mrs. Lowe—instead dwelling at length on our enthusiasm and capacity for hard work, plus reassuring her of his constant support. We never doubted that Sven’s persuasive powers and his promised guidance in particular were clearly the factors that swung the balance in our favour, and won over that seemingly cold but astute businesswoman’s hard heart.
Although Mrs. Lowe would have guessed our apprehension, thankfully, she never knew the degree of physical pain I was experiencing. A minor whiplash injury to my neck was the result of a small car accident on my way to work that morning. The rest of the day I had worn a cervical collar (neck support) removed only long enough for x-ray confirmation that nothing was broken or displaced. The recommendation was to wear it for a few days to support and assist healing of muscle strain and soft tissue damage. The collar had been removed after the painful 90 minute drive to her farm, and before the all-important introduction and interview for the job. We feared it would show weakness, or inability to become the strong and capable share-farmers she needed. Pride can be a wonderfully effective adrenalin pump, when hearts and souls are so incredibly challenged to do well.
Against all odds, this wealthy old lady chose us to be her new share-farmers. From the beginning, it was contractual that we would be offered first right of purchase sometime far into the future… IF she should ever decide to sell. Sven’s belief in us had strengthened our case and won the day—AND the share-farming agreement. His continuing support and superb advice would carry us through some dark days, until the sun came shining through once again. His knowledge of all things dairy was formidable. There was no facet he had not investigated or tried personally, enabling his sage advice on every pro and con of our current question or problem. Buoyed up by his support, we would achieve the near-impossible. In the first year we actually doubled the production levels of a sick and badly neglected herd of dairy cows at their lowest ebb.
“We thought we’d have years ahead to save, didn’t we love?” Kanute answers me with a nod and a wry grin.
Due to our stringently limited financial position, we had been delighted with the prospect of many share-farming years ahead… not only to save, but equally importantly to gain valuable experience in the dairy world. Those same frugal limitations dictated our somewhat unusual share-farming agreement (although there are untold ways of ‘sharing’ in use). Our contribution would be the labour for milking; animal husbandry and care of stock; all farm work, including fencing and maintenance of buildings and contents; and responsibility for all fuel for vehicles and machinery. We would also share 1/3 of all running costs in order to receive 1/3 of the milk proceeds. Mrs. Lowe’s contribution would be the land, the cattle, and the machinery necessary to operate the farm.
“Yes, well… all too soon it was the machinery question that caused the whole deal to come a ‘cropper’. Trying to operate with only our rusty old utility, when we so desperately needed a tractor.” Kanute says, and blows a large sighing sort of phew. “Was she kidding? With all those farming years behind her, you’d reckon she’d have thought of it before we actually lived it. Guess such practical matters don’t always occur to the ‘lady of the manor’…”
A particularly wet winter made using the utility firstly impractical, then rapidly impossible, as the paddocks became softer and muddier—and far too wet for a ‘regular-type’ utility. Fortunately, this was finally resolved by the local rural agents applying logic and reality to our bone of contention. They were able to convince the owner we could not operate without the necessities of life—and a tractor was essential for many things, the most urgent being the immediate need to feed out the hay. Like us, the agents clearly knew that within a few short months, the next pressing need would be a mower (not the lawn variety). The chosen paddocks were already closed up to allow their pastures to grow for hay—the essential fodder for the cold winter months when grassy growth slows. Equally important is its essential need in springtime, when the abundant fresh green growth contains few nutrients and the need for a balance of dry feed becomes crucial.
At a round table conference with the stock agent, the Owner considered all this most carefully in her usual serious ‘owl-like’ fashion, sighed heavily several times and then announced her decision—“Well … it seems to me there’s only one answer. The Larsens had better buy the farm!” From that moment her obsession was born that the farm should be ours. After just five months of our share-farming agreement, Mrs. Lowe determined to sell it to us. The additional surprise was the discovery she wished to lease the property to us instead of share-farming and would extend our contract for as long as it took us to get the necessary finance.
“Would deliriously happy describe how we felt?” I feel my eyes light up all over again.
“Absolutely. Delirious… and dazed. Talk about the bitter and the sweet. It was only happening three years or more earlier than even our dreams had permitted.” Once again, our great mate Sven was right behind us, advising and encouraging us to ‘go for it’.
And so our many trips to the city began. “How many do you reckon?” I ask.
“I really don’t know. Too bloody many, if you ask me.”
We trailed around one lending authority after another—stoically accepting their disbelief in our anticipated milk production figures—and yet never losing our confidence that we could do it, somehow. We were nowhere near ready to meet the rigorous demands of the lending authorities, having only a tiny 10% of the price available to put down as deposit. It was far too soon for us. Nevertheless, the challenge and the possibility existed right now—ready or not.
“Out came your trusty calculator and paper and pencil—just like always.” Another of the countless times I have reason to feel blessed by my numbers man’s prowess.
We worked on endless sheets of figures and predictions and educated guesses; tossed and turned through many sleepless nights wondering how we could possibly do it. Between milkings we drove those countless three hour round-trips to the city, always starting out full of optimism that ‘this time’ would be the one.
“How many more times will we return empty-handed?” I remember saying. I felt desperately downhearted… for some reason, this time more than most. Kanute gave me a comforting hug.
“I know love. It’s bloody hard starting milking SO late on these darkest and coldest nights… ” He sighed heavily. Luckily for him, his disappointment and exhaustion would cause him to fall into bed—and sleep—on almost a single breath.
I remember many silent tears on nights like that, as Kanute slept while I continued to relive that day’s disappointments. Will we ever forget the one time we were too tired and miserable to go to the end of our large ‘dry cow’ paddock to ensure our heavily pregnant girls were OK?
“Just this once…” we told ourselves.”Surely everything will be as usual. Some grazing, some laying down chewing their cuds, others sleeping.”
But when we checked in the morning, one of our best cows was dead, after a clearly evident struggle. It’s not wishful speculation to say we could have saved her, because it’s true. The night we surrendered to our fatigue, instead of giving her the miracle of a bottle of glucose injected intravenously for milk fever, she would have lived. This was the most magical cure we had ever seen—so leaving this precious cow unattended was not one of our prouder moments. To this day, that needless death causes us a great deal of pain. To this day either of us only has to say, “What about 100?” for the inevitable next thought—if only…?
Finally our own bank’s Loans Manager gave us a straight answer. Not the one we desperately wanted to hear but a flimsy branch to cling to, a glimmer of hope. Kanute told him we expected to produce 350 lbs. (approx. 159 kg.) of butterfat per cow in our first year. Crucial figures when it’s the butterfat content of the milk the dairy farmer is paid for.
“Nice dream, Mr. Larsen,” the Loans Manager said, with a knowing smirk on his face. “The unfortunate reality is that the average production for a herd like yours—IF they were in in top nick—is 300 lbs. butterfat per cow. That, Mr. Larsen, is not enough to service a loan as large as what you are requesting.” Our crestfallen faces must have touched some softness buried deep in that banker’s heart, because he added, “… but IF you could produce 350 lbs. in one year, come back and see me, and then MY bank will loan you the money. I guarantee it.” As he firmly closed our folder, he raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. He was totally confident he stood on safe and tidy platform, high above the hoi-polloi like us.
Some things are like the proverbial red rag to a bull. Our Bank Manager, along with many others, had seriously underestimated our staying power and bloody-mindedness (some more polite souls may call this ‘determination’). Twelve months later, when we reached that goal and then exceeded even our own guesstimate by 10% (and theirs by more than 28%), we triumphantly returned. With the greatest satisfaction we presented our figures and reminded him of his promise. With the most polite attitude we could muster and tongues firmly tucked into cheeks, we said, “We’re here to see you put your money where your mouth is!” Our trusty banker was stunned, then composed himself, magnanimously extending his congratulations whilst heartily shaking our hands. He seemed as impressed with our achievement as we were.
“You’ve proved your point, alright. Impressive!” He shook his head in disbelief. Did we also detect an undertone of approval… even grudging respect? “I’ll take this directly to the Board’s next meeting.” And he did, and wonder of wonders, it was approved within the record time of just one week. Our joy knew no bounds. As promised, our unlikely ‘fairy godmother’, Mrs. Lowe, had continued to steadfastly refuse all other efforts to purchase our farm, despite more lucrative offers. Now she fulfilled another crucial vow—that she would personally carry our second mortgage.
It was our most fervent dream come true. Our own farm—after all the agonising and struggles; all the heartaches and back-breaking work. Now to get on with the small matter of paying it all back. We airily brushed off the fearful mortgages to both Bank and Mrs. Lowe for the farm itself, and the stock mortgage for the dairy herd, and the loan for the larger stainless steel milk vat we now needed with our increased production. The amazing part was that we never once stopped believing in ourselves and our ability to conquer these formidable debts. Most importantly this self-belief was not misplaced. We were right. Against the odds, within three years we had paid out the loan to the milk co-operative, and the dairy herd and the tractor were ours. A few years later, the second mortgage to the Owner was paid out as well. In the decade that followed, our careful breeding and feeding brought our herd production average up to levels previously unknown for such a motley herd with the history of mismanagement ours had endured.
Way back, my Mum taught me these somewhat twisted versions of old adages—
‘When you’re at the end of your rope, tie a knot in it… and hang on’, and—
‘Bite off more than you can chew—and then chew like hell’.
It took a heap of blood, sweat and tears, but we achieved both, through many years of battling, much ‘hard yakker’, and severe belt-tightening. Despite the odds, we muddled through. This experience of the value of persistence shaped the way we have lived the rest of our lives. It has been our way of coping with the many calculated risks we have taken and won, and significantly intensified our resilience to downturns, disappointments and disasters. When the times got tough, as they often did—we faced the challenges head on—and overcame all obstacles in order to live to fight another day. No prizes for guessing one of my favourite sayings—’The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire’.
Our memories of this decade never stray far from Sven, the man who made all things possible for us. What could we possibly offer in grateful return to the most amazing mentor we would ever have? Without even realising it, we were already repaying him—in a most unlikely but totally individual fashion. He was living through one of the loneliest times of his life. Sven was a widower with three small children to raise on his own, following his wife’s death soon after the birth of their youngest son. He had never found another to take his wife’s place. It seemed too much to ask of any woman—to become an instant mother of three—AND take on the demanding routine of a dairy farmer’s wife. Somehow, he had continued milking his cows, the only job he knew, for his family’s livelihood throughout this testing time.
Despairing of finding a wife, he had engaged a variety of housekeepers, often with the poorest of outcomes and little success. At last his eldest, a daughter, was relieving much of the emotional and loving needs of his family, freeing him to have a small piece of life of his very own at last. Luckily for us, Sven chose to spend a large portion of this time at our farm, after our respective milkings. Such happy evenings we shared—often into the wee hours of the next morning. No regrets about that… until a few short hours later when we all had to get up again to milk. We were young enough to bounce back really well. Not so sure how he managed… but he remained a glutton for punishment, repeating our late-night sessions countless times.
We discussed and solved all of of our country’s political problems, along with World affairs—plus the crucial questions of weather forecasts and of course, dairying.
“… and didn’t you especially love discussing your good friend, Joh?” Kanute has a cunning glint in his eye, and his mouth tightens at the sides in a sardonic grin. I wrinkle my nose and bare my teeth, as I make a g-r-r-r-owl deep in my throat. My good friend Joh, was one of Australia’s State Premiers at that time… and I loathed him. I found his attitudes bigoted and his policies frighteningly repressive. Freedom of every kind ranks high on my list—alongside freedom of speech and choice, and the right to protest. And yet, I still smile as I revisit my fire and brimstone fervour, and the passionate arguments we shared. This pair of rogues, with their warped sense of humour, loved nothing better than to ‘wind me up’ by pretending to take the opposite stance to mine!
Did I mention sharing a glass of red or three, chased down with coffee and biscuits, and the obligatory Port… or three? Memories flood back of Sven standing up in readiness to leave, refusing to sit down again because he was really on his way this time, but—“maybe … oh-h-h OK… just one more glass before I go.” He loved the challenges of our debates as much as we did, but by this hour of the night, he wouldn’t sit down again. No. He leant on our mantelpiece above the open fire, and without fail, the next sentence would be, “Just before I go…, I must tell you about… ” and we’d be set for another half hour, at least! Did we mind? No way… we loved and learned from every minute we spent with him.
Not a ‘marriage made in heaven’, but perhaps the next best thing. Born out of need (from both sides) and grown by mutual respect, caring and learning, this was a special friendship spanning well over half a decade… so far.
We continued to own our dairy farm for the next ten years, then left by choice to live a different farm life-style, and not milk cows any longer. Sven found a wife—totally for himself, not for the sake of his children. Now the three of them were adults themselves; setting off on their own paths; no longer needing a mother in the same way as earlier in their lives. In a strange twist of fate, Kanute was Master of Ceremonies at Sven’s wedding and built the house of their dreams for he and his bride. (Kanute’s Builder’s Licence had followed qualifying as a Carpenter and Joiner, plus many years in the Building Industry—all earned in our pre-farming lifetime).
Our two dear friends live in that home still, more than 21 years later. Our friend is now 90, and this year, Sven and his ‘bride’ celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. Bizarre to think we are the ‘old-marrieds’, with our Golden wedding anniversary approaching… and yet I am 20 years younger than Sven! Our friendship is as strong as ever it was, and to this day can bring a glint to our eyes… of mischief still, and a happy tear or two as we remember how much we have shared for over half a century.
© Christine Larsen 2015. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
Don’t forget, you can read the first chapter or two of Book One – Brave Beginnings (and even buy a copy, too) at –
I would love to hear your opinions – please consider leaving me a review at any of these places.
And please also feel free to comment on how you feel Book Two is developing and any likes/dislikes/advice/suggestions? Always open to ideas.